Formula 1 is the fastest motorsport in the world, and to be the fastest it needs powerful engines. While the current ones are smaller than their predecessors, they are still extremely powerful. This means they need to be built very precisely in order to last more than just one race.
F1 engines usually need to last for around 7 races. Each driver can use 3 per season without being penalized, but this total needs to cover practice and qualifying sessions as well. This means the engines usually need to last at least 1500 miles (2400 km), but more likely around double that.
We will go through some basic calculations below to find out more precisely how long an F1 engine will last, as well as some of the rules surrounding the number of engines each driver can use in a season. But first, let’s take a closer look at the engine itself.
The Basics Of An F1 Engine
The Power Unit
Formula 1 is famous for its speed. This speed comes from a lot of components working together, with the powerhouse of the cars being the power unit (PU). The PU comprises the internal combustion engine (ICE), the MGU-K and MGU-H (motor generator units, kinetic and heat respectively) and the turbocharger.
Since 2014, and running until 2026, these components make up the hybrid 1.6-liter V6 engines of the cars used in Formula 1. The Covid-19 pandemic brought forward some minor rule changes and pushed others back, with the future of the MGU-H being uncertain, with its departure scheduled for the start of the 2021 season.
The rules surrounding the engines in F1 change in many ways very regularly, with the focus over the last decade or so to be to reduce the financial burden on the teams. An engine can cost several million dollars to produce, and this makes it an expensive part of the car. The fact that the ICE is just one part of the full power unit is important too, as it is very different to its predecessors.
While the V8, V10 and even V12 internal combustion engines of the past sounded more like what many think an F1 car should sound like, they were far less reliable, and much more wasteful. Teams would often run two engines per race weekend, with one being tuned specifically for qualifying and the other for the race itself. This was not only expensive, but it was also unsustainable.
With just four engine manufacturers in F1 as of 2021 (Mercedes, Ferrari, Honda and Renault), the rule changes in the coming years are designed to make the sport more affordable for new entries. However, the rules surrounding the specifics of the engines are also supposed to keep the costs down.
Rules Surrounding F1 Engines
First Penalties In 2004
As discussed in the last section, F1 teams used to run multiple engines per race weekend. 2004 saw the introduction of a 10-place grid penalty for drivers that had to use more than one engine for the race weekend. The following year the engines were then required to run for at least two complete race weekends.
In 2007, the total number of engines used in a season became the critical factor, with drivers limited to 8 per year. 2014, with its increase in efficiency and complexity but decrease in engine size, saw this total number shrink to 5, with it then shrinking further to just 3 for the 2018 season and onwards. However, there are a few specific things to note with this rule change.
Even More Changes
2020 saw some changes to the rules surrounding the specific components that make up the PU. In 2019, 9 out of the 20 drivers received penalties for running an extra MGU-K (the limit was set to 2 for 2019 and several years prior). This led to the FIA changing the limit to 3, which is the same limit for the MGU-H, the ICE itself and the turbocharger.
The energy storage system, in other words the battery, and the control electronics system are limited to 2 of each. When drivers use more than their allocated amount of any of these components, there are various penalties applied to them depending on the component.
The first time a driver uses more than they are allowed of any of these components, they will receive a 10-place grid penalty for the first race in which they will be using the new part. Any more infringements after that and the penalty is 5 places. This means there is pressure on the engineers to make sure each component lasts as long as possible while still being effective.
How Long Does An F1 Engine Last?
For the purposes of this section, we will only consider the components of the power unit itself, and not the electronics. While they can still falter and need replaced for many of the same reasons as the various engine components, they are not strictly part of the power unit, and thus are not going to be the focus here.
A Maximum Of 3
If we consider all of the components as a whole first, we can say that each driver can use three engines over the course of a season. While the usual season length in recent years has been 21 races, the compressed 2020 season was just 17 races long. The 2021 season is scheduled to be longer instead, with 23 races on the calendar.
This means an engine needed to last 7 races in 2019, just over 6 races in 2020 and almost 8 races in 2021. This illustrates the constantly evolving pressure the mechanics are under to create a power unit that will last the right amount of time while still producing the kind of power that they need to win races.
It is this power and speed, close to 1000 BHP and 200+ mph, that makes these engines so impressive. We will talk about how this affects their longevity in a moment, but let’s break down the lifespan of an F1 engine in terms of number of races and the total distance traveled.
First, it is a fairly easy calculation when we need to know how many races an engine should last. While it is not an exact science, and the idea is that the teams are not expecting the engine to die after the last lap in the last race in which it is used, dividing the number of races in the season by the number of components they are allowed each year is the best way to get a rough answer.
However, it would be more accurate to say race weekend instead of race, as the weekend is made up of three practice sessions, a qualifying session and the race itself. This means the engine components need to last (for the 2021 season) just under 8 race weekends each (23/3 = 7.67). This consideration is important when we want to think about how far each engine goes.
If we take the average race distance to be about 190 miles (305 km), we can determine that the engines need to last a total season distance of 4,370 miles (just under 7,000 km). Dividing that by 3 gives us a minimum average engine distance of around 1,457 miles (2,330 km). This might seem incredibly short, but we will discuss the reason for this in a moment.
Practice And Qualifying
However, the engine must also last for 7.67 qualifying sessions, and 7.67 rounds of three practice sessions as well. This is where it gets tricky to talk about the specific distance each engine should last, as each car will do a different number of laps of each track in each specific practice session, and their total qualifying distance will obviously depend on if they get through to Q2 and Q3.
This means the total distance driven by each driver on a given race weekend will vary quite wildly. However, if we presume the driver gets through to at least Q2 every weekend, they will probably knock out an extra 10+ laps per race weekend. This could be an extra 10 x 2 miles in Monaco or 10 x 4.3 miles at Spa. Multiply the average by 23 races and you have an extra 725 miles(nearly 1200 km).
Drivers can also do 70+ extra laps over the course of the 3 free practice sessions, which could be a massive 5,071 miles (more than 8,000 km) over the course of a season! Combining this with our figure from before (5,071 + 4370 = 9,441 miles), we can take a reasonable guess that the average distance an engine component needs to last is at least double that which we calculated for the races alone.
While the engines might last just under 8 races, they really might cover more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) before being swapped out. While some drivers might never see past Q1 and may only do a handful of laps in the practice sessions, others will do far more and always make it through to Q3, and this is why it is just much easier to say the lifetime of an F1 engine in 2021 is “around 8 races”.
Variance Between Drivers
Some drivers will not go through all three of their allocated power unit components, while others will need to take the penalties. Some will need to ease off the power in the final race of the season, while others can take advantage of this with more reliable engines. There is a lot of variance, but F1 engines definitely have relatively short lifespans.
Why Do F1 Engines Last Such A Short Time?
Road Car vs F1 Car
When we consider our own road cars, they will probably go double, triple or more than the average distance an F1 engine will go, and that’s just in one year! Road car engines can sometimes go for more than 200,000 miles, lasting a decade or more before needing replaced. So why do F1 engines last for a fraction of this?
There are a few reasons to consider here, with the first being the idea of tolerances. When manufactured, every individual component of the larger components that make up an F1 power unit will have their own tolerance limits. Everything from the large metal portions to the tiniest of screws will have to be made to within tiny fractions of an inch of a specification.
All About Performance
This is necessary because F1 engines are all about performance. They don’t hit 1,000 BHP and top speeds above 200 mph just by being good; they need to be excellent. This means there are very tight specifications for every tiny part of every engine. But when the engine is used, being revved at more than 12,000 RPM for long periods of time, these components begin to undergo a lot of wear and tear.
While your road car’s engine will also have tolerances within it, and it will also experience everyday wear and tear, these tolerances will be much bigger than those of F1 engines. The wear will also be less intense, but it is the tolerances that really matter here. Your engine will still perform at its desired level after hundreds of thousands of miles, due to the relatively low performance levels.
F1 engines work within such fine margins that small amounts of wear can mean massive drops in performance. When the performance drop is too great, or when the engine can no longer cope with the wear and tear, it is swapped out. Some engines will fail completely, which is a common occurrence for drivers at the end of the season as they approach their limit on their last engines of the year.
The fact that the engines are being pushed so hard also plays a massive role in their short lifespans. Reaching such high revolutions per minute puts unbelievable strain on every component, and no matter how much money is spent on it or how well it is made, it will eventually give way.
Even More Strain
They are constantly going from periods of intense use, within races in particular, to more up and down periods of use, such as in qualifying when they are pushing for one lap and then needing to slow down for another lap afterwards. These changes in use put extra strain on the engines.
Plus, the engines could be damaged in crashes or even minor collisions. The cars are fragile, and it doesn’t take a massive collision with a barrier to damage components of the power unit. If the car is involved in a massive crash, the engine might need to be scrapped altogether. All of these factors contribute to the short average lifespan of an F1 engine.
An F1 engine undergoes a lot of strain, race weekend after race weekend, and is built to such fine tolerances that even tiny amounts of wear can drastically affect performance. Drivers are allocated 3of each of the4 main power unit components per season, and this means the engines need to last for around 8 races each, or about 3,000 miles (4,800 km).